The Men's Race
The 2007 New York City Half Marathon presented a race to be remembered - highlighting the versatility and strength of a handful of top athletes over the half marathon distance. The previous year - the 2006 inaugural NYC Half Marathon featured a close finish with Thomas Nyariki beating Meb Keflezighi and Abdi Abdirihaman to win in 1:01:44. But the 2007 edition had recruited eight men who had previously bested the 62 minute mark and three who had beaten 60 minutes, so it was clear that the second edition of the Half-Marathon would eclipse the inaugural.
Two pre-race press conferences featured the expected leaders. Press conference one highlighted two of the men who had previously run under 60 minutes: Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot (PB 59:21) and Hendrick Ramaala (PB 59:20); as well as the American front-runner Abdi Abdirahman (PB: 61:07) who finished third in the inaugural 2006 race. Each of these men expressed the same goals: 1) Run faster than the previous course record and 2) Beat Haile Gebrselassie.
The second press conference let us meet the man that everyone wanted to beat - Haile Gebrselassie. For those who know "Geb"'s resume, they would know that he had set 22 world records in distances from the 10K to Half Marathon including two set five weeks prior: a world record at the 20,000m (56:25.98) and in the same session the world record for a one-hour run: 21,285m. Considering the recency of those records, the fact that Gebrselassie was the first man to run the Half-Marathon in under 59 minutes (1/15/06 at RNR Arizona Half), and that Geb had not lost a Half-Marathon in any of his seven starts - he really was the man to beat and it was obvious why he was the target of the others.
With temperatures in the 80s and 90s in the days before the NYC Half, it came as a relief to the runners to find race morning temperatures of 71 degrees, although with high humidity. From the beginning, Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot took the lead, pushing the pace and dropping most of the other elite runners by the second mile. Through the first four miles, five runners were in contact with the front group: Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot leading, Haile Gebreselassie by his side, Abdi Abdirahman tucked behind with James Kwambai and Joseph Chirlee finishing the group. But mile 4 is where the major two hills on the course begin and with those, Cheruiyot put in another surge and dropped Kwambai and Chirlee.
Cheruiyot, Gebrselassie and Abdirahman continued through the rolling terrain of Central Park to mile 7 when the course veered out of the park to finish the final miles with a gradual down and pancake flat finish. Just beyond the exit of the park, the strategy shifted and the decisive moment in the race took place. As the trio came to a water station and Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot slowed for a cup, Gebrselassie called out to Abdirahman to "Go!" And Abdi did go, pulling Gebrselassie with him and dropping Kipkoech Cheruiyot. For the next quarter mile Abdirahman continued to lead until Gebrselassie made his own move and began to run away with the race. Abdirahman would tell us later that when Gebrselassie told him to go that he didn't expect him to pass him so soon after, but that is what happened.
Through the final five miles, Gebrselassie gained more than a minute on his competitors to make running a 59:24 Half-Marathon look easy and showing why he has gained the fame and reputation that he holds. Abdirahman continued on his strong pace to finish in second place in 1:00:29, knocking nearly 40 seconds off his previous personal best. Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot held on for third place in 1:00:58 against a hard-charging James Kwambai who finished in 1:01:03. Fifth place went to Joseph Chirlee of Kenya in 1:02:47, who because of an administrative error was sporting bib number 13088 as he ran. Alan Culpepper finished in a strong 1:03:18 to take sixth place and honors as second American finisher.
To put the results into perspective - on a not-so-easy Half Marathon course, Haile Gebrselassie's 59:24 was the second fastest Half-Marathon time ever run on US soil - second only to his 58:55 finish in ideal conditions in Phoenix in 2006. With his 1:00:29 and new personal best, Abdirahman's Half-Marathon best falls just two seconds behind Khalid Khannouchi's best achieved on an easier course - suggesting (in combination with his breakthrough 2:08:56 at the 2006 Chicago Marathon) that Abdirahman might be approaching the skill level of Khannouchi in his best days.
And, to add to our praise for Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot who ran a fantastic race by leading and trying to break Gebrselassie early... Most will remember that Cheruiyot won the 2006 and 2007 Boston Marathon and also won the 2006 Chicago Marathon while suffering a fall at the end of that race. We learned that Cheruiyot has continued to experience pain in his head when training at high intensities since last Fall. Following the race, Cheruiyot was feeling those pains and was taken to the hospital for an MRI immediately following the race.
The Women's Race
It is always more difficult to find the depth and talent to fill a women's field than a men's, but the NYC Half did a decent job and put on a great show. In the inaugural (2006) event, a close race ended with Catherine Ndereba (Kenya) nipping a hard-charging Benita Johnson (Australia) to win while both were awarded the same time of 1:09:43. The 2007 race featured the return of Catherine Ndereba to defend her title, but the absence of Benita Johnson. In Johnson's place, the New York Road Runners recruited Madai Perez, Nina Rillstone, Hilda Kibet and Yuri Kano.
The women's race began with the six top contenders trading leads through Central Park and staying together until the race completed the hills and exited the park onto the downhill and flat. Madai Perez was the first to make a move, but Catherine Ndereba and Hilda Kibet together countered and took the lead. Nina Rillstone, who had fallen back by a few seconds, put on a surge to recatch Kibet and Ndereba and lead the race into the 20K split before falling back slightly. At the finish, Hilda Kibet held off the competition to win in 1:10:32, with Catherine Ndereba finishing immediately behind in 1:10:33 and a charging Nina Rillstone finishing third in 1:10:35 - a new New Zealand Half-Marathon record.
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Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot Leads the Pack at Mile 4 - behind (r to l): Abdirahman, Gebrselassie, Chirlee, Kwambai
Cheruiyot, Gebrselassie and Abdirahman at mile 6
The women's pack at mile 3
(r to l):Catherine Ndereba (behind), Yuri Kano, Megumi Oshima, Nina Rillstone, Madai Perez,(some guy),Hilda Kibet
Abdirahman finishing second in a new PR 1:00:29
Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot finishing third
Hilda Kibet Wins, Followed by Ndereba and Rillstone
Moments After the Finish
Five of the Top Six
(l to r): Abdirahman (2nd), Gebrselassie (1st), Culpepper (6th), Chirlee (5th), Kwambai (4th)